The Double Life Of Clare Dunkel

How one of the biggest glamour models of the 1980s became an acclaimed author of ultra-violent crime fiction.

The story of Clare Dunkel, who died at the end of July, is an interesting one – evidence that we can reinvent ourselves and proof that the glamour models that a lot of people – including the people who would otherwise be the first to jump on judging people by stereotypes – think of as airheaded bimbos at best and exploited victims at worst are actually just like everyone else – individuals with their own talents, abilities, personalities and interests. Not exactly news to many of us, but the sort of thing that unfortunately needs continually emphasising in a world where people still like to dismiss these women.

Clare Dunkel was a person with multiple identities – as Mo Hayder, she authored ten crime novels that were noted for their graphic, horror-flavoured violence and sold some 6.5 million copies worldwide. Crime fiction is a curious genre that sits on the edge of respectability – hugely popular yet viewed with suspicion by the pearl-clutchers who fret about everything from salaciousness to misogyny. It’s also an overcrowded field, and so any author who wants to stand out needs something about them. In Dunkel’s case, it seemed to be an emphasis on brutality and gore-drenched descriptions that pushed the works into the realm of horror.

In the 1980s, Clare Dunkel was Candy Davis, a briefly ubiquitous glamour model noted for her hyper-sexual persona, big blonde hair and a flair for comedy. Predictably, the former attributes rather overshadowed the latter, and while Davis had a recurring role as Mr Grace’s secretary in Are You Being Served? (a role also filled over the years by Penny Irving and Debbie Linden) and appeared in the Benny Hill Show, she was seen simply as a bit of totty – the sort of eye-candy for male viewers that these shows specialised in. Whether or not Candy Davis was a good actor was something that no one bothered to find out, but her brief appearances in these shows and spots in Cannon and Ball, Bottle Boys, The Two Ronnies (where her various roles included ‘Miss Exotica Stormtrooper’) and Minder, where she played a stripper. I’ve long maintained that these small parts as ‘glamour stooges’ require more talent than the actors are given credit for, with a lot of physical comedy required without much rehearsal time or direction. Candy Davis also appeared in the 1983 film version of Fanny Hill, was a page 3 Girl and Miss Nude UK in 1982 – a contest that may or may not have existed outside the world of Electric Blue videos (which featured her as the cover girl on volume 18).

In a different time, Candy Davis might have become a cult figure like Valerie Leon, Margaret Nolan or Madeline Smith – someone who could be sexy and funny. But the mid-1980s was a terrible time for British cinema and the TV glamour girl was already becoming very unfashionable. Few glamour girls have successfully transitioned beyond that role, because producers and directors simply don’t take them very seriously. Reinvention is, perhaps, the only way forward.

Clare Dunkel took time away from the media spotlight, moving to Japan at the end of the 1980s after divorce from actor Gary Olsen, and became slowly obsessed with violent death after a friend was raped. She wrote her first novel, Birdman, in 1995 and it was published four years later under the pen name Mo Hayder, becoming an immediate sensation thanks to its dark, graphic descriptions – something that she would expand on in subsequent books.

It’s unclear just what Clare Dunkel thought of her past persona – few people ever seemed to make the connection between the two, and if they did she wasn’t really asked about it. We had hoped to do so ourselves as part of a forthcoming Reprobate piece, but she had already been diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease in December, and the disease progressed rapidly, leading to her death in July.

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  1. Very interesting piece – thank you – and a fascinating life. The cover of Electric Blue No. 18 has stayed with me, a classic 80s glamour image. I was 17 that year. By the way, not sure about Candy being married to Gary Holt; surely the late British actor Gary Olsen (2point4 Children)?

  2. Her story is rather fascinating and one of constant reinvention; born Clare Damaris Bastin to an astrophysicist father, and a mother who was a teacher, later attending universities in this country and the US, becoming an actress in stereotypical blonde bimbo roles as Candy Davis, then becoming a somewhat anonymous crime fiction author under the pen names Mo Hayder and Theo Clare and changing her own name to Beatrice Clare Dunkel. I remember her mostly as an actress in the mid-80’s where she showed an adept sense of comic timing opposite such performers as The Two Ronnies, Benny Hill and Cannon and Ball, before seemingly vanishing from view. It has only become widely known since her untimely death a few weeks ago that she forsook performing to become a critically acclaimed novelist, of which I was unaware as many others were.

  3. I didn’t know about Mo Hayder’s past! But I love her novels. Very creepy, very morally dark. She’d gone quiet after her book Wolf quite a few years ago, and we in the crime fic world have been craving more. Just heard not long before she died that she had new sci-fi books coming under another pen name. I think we’ll at least get the first one. She will be so missed.

  4. The Treatment was adapted into an excellent Belgian film. De Behandeling for which I believe she also wrote the screenplay.

  5. So sad to hear that Candy has died. I was a fan of hers and loved seeing her on tv, I loved her image and thought she was so pretty. I am stunned to learn of her writing career and amazing success, I wrongly assumed she was a typical Essex glamour model not the talented daughter of a renowned astrophysicsist!

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